They say “the show must go on,” and Merle Haggard made sure it did, while confessing that he had “the Arkansas crud” Wednesday night at Robinson Center Music Hall before 1,800 or so faithful fans. And while Haggard will turn 77 in a few days, he still knows how to entertain despite feeling less than his best.
Thanks to his nine-person band, The Strangers, Haggard managed to ease through a little more than a hour of some of his greatest hits, plus one of his newest songs, “Working in Tennessee.” The song was inspired by hearing from Marty Stuart about the flood in Nashville that had sent Haggard’s vintage Martin guitar “floating down the Cumberland River.”
Haggard began his show with one of his signature hits, “Big City,” with its line about his lack of interest in “your so-called Social Security.” He followed that with “Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star,” “Silver Wings,” “I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink,” “Kern River,” “Daddy Frank (The Guitar Man),” “Mama Tried,” “That’s the Way Love Goes,” “Are the Good Times Really Over,” “Workin’ Man Blues” and even a Johnny Cash classic, “Folsom Prison Blues.”
And knowing that his audience would not be satisfied until they heard “that song,” he ended what had to have been a difficult evening with “Okie From Muskogee,” and no one expected an encore after that, filing out satisfied to have seen a legend giving it his all.
Haggard’s youngest son, Ben, only 21, did superb work on electric guitar and Haggard’s wife, Theresa, sang backing vocals, occasionally accompanied by another Haggard woman, Dana. His veteran fiddle player and steel guitarist held down separate sides of the no-frills stage, and Haggard, who mostly played rhythm guitar, even played fiddle on one tune. Others in the band played bass, keyboard and drums.
There was an opening set by a young Rosebud native, Josh Newcombe, who showed promise on several of his original songs, especially “That’s What Happens.”
As he left, Haggard promised to return and do a better show, and his fans seemed happy to let him go with that heartfelt pledge.
Like Mama, Merle tried.